By Daphne Baldwin Kornrich, MS, RDN, CSOWM, CDN
Why do people in certain areas tend to live longer than others? Dr. Michael Poulain, a Belgian demographer, Dr. Gianni Pes of the University of Assari in Italy and Dan Buettner, author of The Blue Zones and a National Geographic Fellow & Explorer, have been researching the world’s longevity hotspots since 2003. They identified five places in the world with diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds but with similar behavioral and social characteristics. These “Blue Zones” – Loma Linda in California, Nicoya Peninsula in Costa Rica, Sardinia in Italy, Okinawa in Japan, and Ikaria in Greece – have been known to have the greatest percentage of people living above the age of 90 (1).
Ikaria is a small rocky island in the Aegean Sea. It has historically been attacked by Persians, Romans and Turks, causing much of the population to live inland. This led to the development of a culture that honors tradition, family values and longevity. Ikaria has some of the oldest people in the world. The average lifespan is nearly 10 years longer than in other parts of the world, including other areas of Greece. Not only do the people of Ikaria live longer, they also live higher quality lives with incidences of dementia nearly non-existent (1,2).
There is increasing scientific evidence that there are protective health benefits from traditional ways of living involving diet, physical activity, an active social life and an optimistic attitude. Researchers performed a population-based health and nutrition survey called the “Ikaria study” to try to determine the reasons for Ikarians’ longevity. Major findings revealed that most of the study population followed a Mediterranean style meal plan, engaged in daily physical activity, took noon siestas and were involved in social activities (2).
An article published in the New York Times Magazine in 2012 by Dan Buettner also identified many factors that explain the good health and longevity of the Ikarian people (3). Here are some tips we can take from the Ikarians:
- Lower intake of saturated fat from meats and dairy, which helps reduce the risk of heart disease.
- Use olive oil, which may help decrease LDL (low density lipoprotein) cholesterol – think “L” for lousy – and may help increase HDL (high density lipoprotein) cholesterol – think “H” for healthy.
- Try some wild greens such as dandelion, ferns or chicory, a major component of the Ikarian diet, that contain many antioxidants.
- Engage in habitual daily activity such as walking, gardening, cleaning and yard work
- Drinking some red wine in moderation may help our bodies absorb antioxidants better.
- Drinking coffee has been linked to helping lowering risk of diabetes and Parkinson’s disease and has beneficial antioxidants.
- Don’t like coffee? Try herbal teas, which are also full of antioxidants. Also use greens in your cooking, such as oregano and rosemary, which have anti-diuretic properties (remember to check with your physician regarding caffeine and herbal teas, which may be contradicted with certain medical conditions and medications).
- Limit processed foods and eat a diet that resembles a traditional Mediterranean diet with lots of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, beans and limited meat.
- Make social connections and stay close with those you love.
- Take a midafternoon break. Napping has been shown to decrease stress and may lower the risk of heart disease.
The main takeaway here is to eat well, sleep well, be active, stay connected and be optimistic.
- Kochilas, Diane. Ikaria. New York: Rosedale, 2014
- Hellenic J. Cardiol 2011; 52: 479-480
Daphne Baldwin Kornrich, MS, RDN, CSOWM, CDN has been a registered dietitian nutritionist for the past 30 years, working in a wide variety of clinical and outpatient settings. She specializes in bariatrics and weight management.